Real Victorian People: Florence Cook

Spirit Katie King with Florence Cook (left) and Sir William Crookes

 The Spiritualism Movement

“Spiritualism” was popular in England from the 1840s until the end of the Edwardian era.  One of its most famous proponents, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, championed individuals he believed possessed true psychic powers, writing books and articles on the topic.  In those days, spiritualism was one of the few areas where a female practitioner could be acknowledged as an authority.  In fact, since women were regarded as innately more spiritual than men, a woman who professed to see ghosts or channel messages was often considered more credible than a man making the same claims.

Famous (later infamous) medium Florence Cook

Florence Cook and Katie King

Florence Cook professed psychic abilities from childhood.  This included seeing apparitions, hearing voices, and eventually falling into trances.  By 1872, sixteen-year-old Florence began taking part in seances.  During a seance, Florence and a few others sat around a table in a dim parlor.  With the curtains drawn and the lamps low, the medium and her audience strove to contact communicative spirits.  Whether you believe in this sort of thing or not, there can be no doubt much of the tapping, moaning, chain-rattling and light-flickering that went on in these darkened parlors was pure fakery.  Even today we still use the term: parlor tricks.

As Florence gained prominence among English spiritualists, Katie King appeared.  Katie King was an entity already known to paranormal enthusiasts.  According to the story, she first appeared to American spiritualists in the 1850s, claiming to be the daughter of a spirit called John King who in life was the buccaneer known as Henry Morgan.  To me this sounds a bit muddled — spirits taking up aliases?  But the Spiritualists found nothing unusual about it, apparently.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle explains it all in his History of Spiritualism.

Katie King and Florence Cook seemed to get on well.  First Katie’s floating face appeared during one of Florence’s sessions.  Then her whole body.  Then Katie reportedly began making daily appearances and promised to remain with Florence for three years.

Katie King, or Eliza White in costume?


Florence Cook’s manifestations of Katie King were debunked not once but twice.  First, a lawyer named William Volckman broke several rules of spiritualist etiquette by leaping up from the table, grabbing Katie King (!!!) and insisting she was, in fact, Florence Cook in costume.  Florence and her defenders maintained that the startling resemblence between Katie and Florence was unsurprising.  Materialized spirits, they explained, are formed from the medium’s personal energy.

Later, a scientist named Sir William Crookes tested Florence to his satisfaction and declared her mediumship genuine.  But just as an article praising her authenticity was prepared for Atlantic Monthly, a woman named Eliza White announced the “authenticated” photograph of Katie King was really a picture of her in costume.  Again, Florence and her defenders offered a swift explanation — bright light ruins materializations, so to permit the public to visualize Katie King, someone was hired to pose as her.  The real villain, they argued, was Eliza White, for going public.

You can read a very nice and far more detailed article on the topic here.

3 thoughts on “Real Victorian People: Florence Cook

  1. @ Jenx Byron: thanks! I have much more on this topic; there is probably an entire book in there somewhere.@ mewofford: I am sure you did, but I can't recall exactly. Isn't it The Haunting of Hill House which deals with lots of this? And there was a recent movie … but I can't recall the title, so I guess it didn't enthrall me too much …

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